Muslim identity in a quandary

By Jaseem Pasha, MD
What is the most reliable criterion that one can use to define a “Muslim Identity”?

The entire Deen of Islam is focused on two Quranic principles that repetitiously emphasize that the true peace of mind comes only when a believer maintains a balanced relationship with a) Allah SWT and fulfills His Right to be revered God (Haqooq-ul-Allah) and b) the relationship with His Creation, which includes every form of life, the entire mankind and the surrounding ecosystem. The latter relationship (Haqooq-ul-Ebad) relates to God requiring every Muslim to be always mindful of one’s obligation to display love, compassion, tolerance, to show reverence of human dignity, reverence of human rights, and treating everyone fairly, and exhibit respect for the rule of the law, without excluding anyone.

It stands to reason to assume that a Muslim’s character, personality, disposition and paradigm of life have to be based fundamentally on those moral values, which specifically ensure that these two basic human relationships, founded on the Quranic principles mentioned above, are never compromised.

The special relationship that exists between a believer and the Creator-God (Haqooq-ul-Allah) is something very private and very personal, and no one can make any judgment (good or bad) about anyone, since no one knows what is in the hearts of people. This judgment belongs exclusively only to Allah SWT.

The five pillars of Islam are integral part of Haqooq-ul-Allah and how good or bad is the quality of the practice of these five pillars, only Allah SWT knows best and also the only reliable Judge.

That is why our beloved Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) placed more weight on the Haqooq-ul-Ebad and chose to define a “Muslim” as one from whose hands and tongue no one gets harmed and from whom everyone is safe. Anything else is a private matter between man and God.

In other words, the Muslim Identity is not to be judged by what a Muslim believes about oneself, but how his or her words and deeds make an impact on both Muslims and non-Muslims. If the impact on others is such that everyone feels safe around such a person, then indeed such a persona has a Muslim identity.

Hence, the proof of the Muslim Identity lies, not in one’s external garb or one’s claimed beliefs, but the degree of sense of safety, security and peace that is imparted by the impact that a Muslim makes on others. If others do not experience this quality of impact, a Muslim Identity would be like a nut without a kernel.

Based on Prophet’s definition of a real Muslim, it stands to reason that the definition of Muslim Identity has to be totally compatible with Prophet’s definition of a Muslim. Adding any other conditions to the definition of a ‘Muslim’ is tantamount to altering the way Prophet defined it.

In what way using Prophet’s definition of a ‘Muslim’, as a basis of Muslim Identity, is more useful and beneficial to Muslims?

The great thing about Prophet’s definition of a ‘Muslim’ is that both believing and non-believing people have no difficulty in recognizing a righteous person that meets the Prophet’s definition of a “Muslim”. This definition also encourages every Muslim to build one’s identity and personality around taqwa, and not around one’s religious sect1, ethnicity, or nationality, etc.

I believe that this would also be the most befitting and non-controversial definition of “Muslim Identity”.

This definition of Muslim identity, based on Prophet’s perspective of who is a ‘Muslim’, creates no conflict with any type of ethnic or cultural environment. In fact, this definition facilitates a Muslim to integrate and live in harmony within a non-Muslim culture anywhere in the West.

What if one defines Muslim Identity based on different factors other than Prophet’s approach in defining a Muslim?

The most common factors that are mistakenly assumed to be an integral part of Muslim identity’ are features, like nationality, culture, ethnicity, language and quite often one of the scores of versions of Sunni or Shia sub-sectarian religions that one follows.

The barriers and challenges to integration of Muslims in Western culture arise only when the definition of Muslim Identity gets corrupted and finds its foundation on features that have no relevance to the two Quranic principles mentioned earlier, and fail to integrate Prophet’s definition of a Muslim and completely ignore the Haqooq-ul-Ebad.

Is it wrong or unhealthy to also have an identity linked to one’s culture, nationality, or ethnicity, etc?

No, there is nothing unhealthy about it. One can have an identity based on one’s culture, nationality, or ethnicity and at the same time also have a Muslim identity, based on two Quranic principles mentioned earlier.

There is nothing unhealthy about people constructing an identity around these psycho-social-cultural factors and taking pride in them. After all, the diversities are natural and there is nothing wrong to be emotionally attached and being loyal to them.

Allah SWT said:
“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed, in that are Signs for those of knowledge.” Surah Ar-Rum 30:22

When does then one’s personal identity becomes unhealthy?

The personal identity can become “unhealthy” when the components of one’s identity also become the criteria of judging others who are ‘different’ and using them to determine who are better or superior and who are worse or inferior.

Such an unhealthy and arrogant approach only makes the individual perceive and divide the entire humanity as “Us” and “Them”. This egocentric approach can never become the basis of common grounds, or building bridges with people who are “different” in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, color of skin, religious beliefs, gender and sexual orientation.

Muslim identity based on a paradigm of “Us” and “Them” and laced with arrogance is psychologically and spiritually too unhealthy to grasp the importance of recognizing common grounds that bind the entire mankind as single brotherhood. It deprives the Muslim from comprehending and appreciating the real meaning of the concepts of pluralism, secularism, and the terms, such as political referendum, democracy, ‘due process’ and respect for the ‘rule of the law’.

Such an unhealthy identity also renders a Muslim incapable in figuring out the real meaning of Quranic terms, such as shura, process of building consensus, the concept of “People of the Book”, the difference between “being a Muslim” and “being a human being”.

Muslims with unhealthy Muslim identity have lots of trouble understanding the meaning of Quranic verse 2:256 that commands: “- - - there is no compulsion in the Deen of Islam - - -.” These are the Muslims whose mindset is most vulnerable to develop a pre-jihadi personality and later turning into terrorists.

On the other hand, when one builds one’s Muslim identity based on additional factors, such as values and beliefs founded on love, compassion, sense of fairness and altruism, the approach towards others who are ‘different’ remains healthy, regardless of one’s religious, ethnic, or national background.

Therefore, “Identity” is a paradigm of life. The more a paradigm is based on truth, facts and reality, the healthier is one’s identity and closer it is to human nature (fitra).

Why is there so much confusion about Muslim Identity?

It has become a part of Muslim culture to think and label anything and everything in life in terms of “Islamic” and “un-Islamic”.

It is now a routine to call Muslim history “Islamic history”, Muslim literature as “Islamic literature”, Muslim arts and cultures as “Islamic arts and cultures”, Muslim scholars as “Islamic scholars”, Muslim scholars’ opinions and fatwas as “Islamic Shariah”, Muslim countries as “Islamic countries”, Muslim organizations as “Islamic organizations”, Muslim personalities as “Islamic personalities”, the conquests by Muslim Kings and Sultans, regardless how ruthless they might have been, as “Islamic conquests”, and Pakistani bomb as “Islamic (Sunni) bomb1”.

The behavior of a Muslim does not automatically become “Islamic”, just because he or she has a label of a Muslim. The conquests by a ruthless Muslim ruler cannot be labeled “Islamic conquests” just because he was a Muslim.

The use of these labels overshadows the truthfulness and honesty, and gives justification to moral values and behaviors that would be repugnant to any civilized society.

Emphasis on external Islamist garb:

However you look at it, many Islamist scholars give an extraordinary importance to an external appearance as a core component of “Islamic Personality” or “Islamic Identity”, and very conveniently neglect to emphasize the importance of integrating in one’s paradigm all of the universal moral values having roots in the Quranic principles, as if they were never part of Prophet’s Sunnah.

Litmus test for Islamic Identity:

One should let one’s Islamic personality reflect the real Islam, based on the Quranic principles and Prophet’s Sunnah that directs one to become truly a good human being, the one who has Taqwa, the one who steadfastly adheres to the following two categories of core values:

1. Being honest to self and having personal integrity; a core value that is directed toward self, being righteous; and,

2. The following 4 core values that are directed toward others:
a. Respect for human dignity, without excluding anyone,
b. Respect for human rights, without excluding anyone,
c. Upholding fairness and justice, without excluding anyone,
d. Respect for the rule of the law, without excluding anyone.

1.There are scores of organized Muslim religious sects and sub-sects under the main 3 divisions, viz., Sunni, Shia and Ibadi. Accordingly, there are also scores of corresponding “Islamic Shariahs” or “Islamic Jurisprudence(s)”

2.Interestingly, the idea of Pakistani Islamic bomb was acceptable to the Western War mongers and their ally, Saudi Arabia, but the Iranian bomb (Shia bomb) was totally unacceptable.

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